WHAT COMES to mind when you think of “smart” technology? Smart phones, smart televisions, smart watches, and various other forms of “smart” technology that involve artificial intelligence have all become so irreversibly fused into our lives. Smart technology serves to increase the convenience of life, ensuring that various tasks become quicker and more efficient. With the introduction of driverless technology, smart trains are about to become the latest addition to this industry. Self-automated and ultra-efficient, the driverless smart train has become a symbol of the future of our transportation.
Driverless technology introduced into subways
“Driverless” is a completely different concept from “autonomous.” While an autonomous operation is run by artificial intelligence that handles only certain locomotive aspects, such as parking, driverless operation is entirely managed by automation with minimal supervision. The public is more familiar with driverless technology in automobiles that navigates the car automatically to its destination by calculating the optimal route. Driverless trains work similarly, being operated independently without any human driver.
The Incheon Railway Line Two marked the start of a successful driverless train operation in Korea. Initially, however, this plan was met with resistance by the public due to safety concerns. In response to the growing voices of apprehension, the Incheon Transit Corporation implemented various solutions. According to Maeil Business News, these solutions included incorporating emergency stop buttons, derailment detecting technology, platform barrier doors, and deploying qualified staff on board to secure the safety of the passengers, all of which serve the common purpose of ensuring a risk-free initiation of the Driverless Train Operation (DTO) in Korea.
Seoul Metro has officially announced that DTO is to be fully applied in Seoul by 2022, ambitiously planning to completely overhaul the existing semi-automatic system. This process will be facilitated by Barcelona’s transport system, the Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), which has agreed to provide its technology and experience to the Seoul Metro. According to an interview conducted with News1, the Seoul Metro claimed that though South Korea’s driverless technology is top-notch, the TMB’s experience in this field would be of great help due to their expertise in hands-on operations.
The TMB has shown exemplary work in operating with driverless trains, managing two lines successfully under DTO. As there is no staff on board to oversee the driving of the train, the controlling of the system is undertaken at the Metro Control Center, which the TMB refers to as the “nerve center of the metro network.” The Center is run by specialists who constantly monitor the operation and intervene in case of sudden emergencies; otherwise, their trains are able to function completely on their own.
According to the Transportation Research Board, levels of automation are defined by the Grades of Automation (GoA), which range from zero to four: GoA 1 is the lowest level in which all functions of the train are manually controlled. By GoA 4 or Unattended Train Operation (UTO), all functions of the train are automated and require no personnel to oversee its operation. With TMB’s aid, there have already been several trial runs of DTO on Seoul’s railway line eight on the third level of the GoA scale, GoA 3. In this level, the driving of the train is automated while personnel are present only in case of emergencies. South Korea’s subways currently operate on GoA 2, which is the semi-automatic level, where the driver oversees the arrival and departure of the train.
The TMB also has experience converting trains that operate by the GoA 2 systems into ones operated with GoA 3, which underscores the TMB’s aptitude in contributing to South Korea’s driverless train operation. The Seoul Metro aims to oversee the upgrades of the existing metro systems, instead of building a whole new railway line. This is because Seoul’s pre-existing railway systems are relatively new; the latest construction of new railway lines was in September 2017, according to the National Archives of Korea. In order to prevent the unnecessary costs of renovating a completely functional system, the Seoul Metro has chosen to experimentally upgrade the existing railways.
Questions to be addressed
Driverless trains will benefit their passengers in many obvious ways. Perhaps the most apparent is their punctuality. Trains that are scheduled mechanically to follow a certain schedule are more likely to depart and arrive on time than those that are manually operated. Another benefit of the driverless trains is energy efficiency. Artificial intelligence calculates the optimal amount of energy required of tasks such as braking for arrivals and departures in accordance with each station’s intervals. Siemens AG Germany predicts that in some cases the energy consumption may be reduced by 30%. Last but not least, driverless trains provide flexibility. We often find that the intervals between the manually controlled trains during the busiest hours do not correlate with the demands of the passengers. With DTO, trains could easily be deployed in larger numbers during rush hours and in fewer numbers during the less swamped hours, further reducing energy expenses while accommodating for passengers’ needs.
However, as with any new technology, the system of driverless trains must answer many questions before it is implemented. The first and foremost question is safety. Virtually all technology is designed to make life more efficient. However, is efficiency valuable enough to compromise safety? Are driverless trains safe enough to secure the safety of at least 7 million citizens a day without causing any accidents? The biggest issue is that the technology is yet to reach maturity. This becomes potentially more dangerous in its application to the Seoul Metro, as trial runs of the unstable technology will be carried out with more than one thousand passengers on board. There is no doubt that there will be problems, such as mechanical defects or operation failures due to the lack of direct human supervision during the trial runs. Furthermore, there must be a clear distinction made between technology and its application. Application requires taking into account the unpredictable nature of humans. A few staff on board, barrier doors, monitors and surveillance cameras may not be enough to prevent serious accidents that may occur in a matter of seconds.
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Human errors and flaws should always remain a consideration in the implementation of any technology, regardless of its state of development. Driverless technology is no exception to this principle, and its application will never be without the possibility of defects or accidents. Considering that the mechanics of the driverless technology are yet to fully mature, the Seoul Metro’s new enterprise calls for heightened awareness of its possible pitfalls. Nonetheless, it is our job to ensure that the dangers of this incredible technology are minimized, so that its potential can be fully harnessed.